Death through the eyes of an animal

Grief isn’t just a human emotion; animals show similar behaviors when facing loss. From elephants mourning their fallen to dolphins carrying their deceased calves, exploring animal grief offers profound insights into our shared experiences with death.

This post is also available in Dutch.

The sociological and psychological effects of death on human lives have been extensively studied in the past. Despite the attempt of studying various aspect of death in the animal kingdom, there are fewer attempts on explaining the grieving processes following death. To promote such research,  the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal B proposed to define an entire new field of study focusing on the evolutionary aspects of grief and mourning in both humans and animals: evolutionary thanatology.

Animals change their behavior

When mourning, both humans and animals change their behavior. Animals might start exhibiting a set of habits that are not useful for survival. The Colorado State University explains that pets display grief similarly to humans and aspects of their personalities may change for a period of time. Some animals display a new eating schedule or a complete loss of interest in it. They change their sleeping pattern, like sleeping in unfamiliar places or napping more. They change their bonding habits, like becoming clingy, isolating or showing aggression.

Signs of grieving after the passing of companions or offsprings are shown also by wild animals. Elephants, for example, have been observed displaying behaviors associated with mourning. For example, they stay with the body of a deceased individual for an extensive period and return to visit the remains.

Chimpanzees and other primates can show signs of distress and depression after the loss of a companion, while orca whales and dolphins have been spotted carrying their deceased calves while emitting distress calls. It has been hypothesized that this behavior serves as a mechanism to help the mother cope with the loss of her offspring.

Do animals grieve like us?

As we have already seen, animals can exhibit behaviors that resembles ours when grieving: loss of appetite, disruption of sleeping pattern, lamenting. Like humans, animals vary in the degree they respond to death. The more social a species is the more its response to death can be described as mourning. Some animals, like foxes, bury the bodies of their deceased mates, while magpies lay leaves and twigs next to the bodies.

Charles Darwin, in his book “The Descent of Man”, explored the emotional lives of animals and their capacities of mourning and grieving. He describes some behaviors that suggest that they experience emotions like grief for the loss of a companion. However, for much of the past couple of centuries, scientists have been quite hesitant in classifying the behaviors we’ve described so far as grief. These scientists wanted to avoid attributing human traits – or anthropomorphizing – to the animals’ actions. But to develop a more explicit understanding of the evolution of mourning and grief for humans and other animals, we need to be able to study their behavior in response to death, setting some criteria without the fear of anthropomorphizing.

Picture credits: Darel Low from Unsplash. The picture depicts the statue of Hachiko. Click here to read his story.

Author: Francesca Abela

Buddy: Swantje Neil   

Editor: Elena Markantonakis  

Translator: Eline de Boer

Editor Translation: Lucas Geelen

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